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Three Things We Learned Thursday: Russell Westbrook’s 31st triple-double ties Wilt, beats Spurs

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It’s only March, but I think we have the winner for “Best Headline of 2017” already: “Lawyer’s Pants Catch On Fire During Arson Trial.” Beyond that, here are the takeaways from a Thursday around the NBA.

1) Russell Westbrook‘s 31st triple-double ties Wilt Chamberlain, lifts Thunder past Spurs.
Anytime you’re mentioned as doing something as well and as often as Wilt Chamberlain, you’re in impressive company. (And I know where your mind just went, but I’m going to be classier than that. Just this once.)

Russell Westbrook had been putting up big numbers lately, but the Thunder couldn’t get stops or wins and had dropped four in a row, all to teams under .500. Thursday night Billy Donovan finally decided to put Taj Gibson in the starting lineup (over rookie Domas Sabonis), and that helped. So did the fact Steven Adams had his best game in a while, getting touches early, going right at the Spurs’ Dewayne Dedmon, and being engaged on both ends. Victor Oladipo would score 20, and Enes Kanter added 14. More importantly, this was the best defensive game from the Thunder in a while. It all helped, but as always this is Westbrook’s team and for them to win he had to put up numbers — he tied Wilt for second most triple-doubles in a season with 31, putting up 23 points, grabbing 13 rebounds and dishing out 13 assists.

For the Spurs, this may have been a little reminder that they want to actually chase the Warriors and the No. 1 seed in the West (they are two games back and the teams play head-to-head Saturday in San Antonio). Granted, Thursday was not the full Spurs experience — no Manu Ginobili or Tony Parker, plus Kawhi Leonard went to the locker room in the third quarter after a blow to the face and did not return — but the road for the No. 2 seed in the West is going to be much tougher than the top seed.

 

Think about it. Win the top seed and a team faces either Denver or Portland in the first round, two terrible defenses, then in the second round gets the beatable Clippers or Jazz. Come in second and the first round is either Westbrook and the Thunder or the very physical and talented Memphis Grizzlies, followed by James Harden and the Rockets in the second round. Yes, the Spurs would beat the Thunder and very possibly the Rockets in a seven-game series (although it would be interesting with Houston), but the road to the conference finals is exponentially harder for the two seed.

2) LeBron James got zero help Thursday night, and the Cavaliers have dropped three straight. The individual +/- stat for a game is rarely useful. There’s a lot of noise in that statistic, a lot of factors beyond how the player performed that make up that number.

However, every once in a while it tells the story. The Cavaliers were + 18 in the 39 minutes LeBron James played against the Pistons Thursday, they were -23 in the nine minutes he rested. This is a little trend.

J.R. Smith returned to the Cavaliers lineup, which will be a boost but on Thursday he was trying to shoot his way out of feeling rusty. Kyrie Irving had 27 points, Channing Frye 15 on seven shots, but the fact is the Cavs shot 26.7 points when LeBron sat. He’s not a Terminator, he’s a human and LeBron still needs rest, but when he played he did put up a triple-double of 29 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists.

Credit Detroit for a good game and a big win. This was the best Reggie Jackson has looked maybe all season, scoring 21 and dishing out five assists, leading six Pistons players in double figures in scoring. Andre Drummond had 20 points and 16 boards. This looked like the Pistons team we expected this season, and the win moved them into the seven seed half-a-game ahead of the slumping Bulls and a full game up on the Heat and Bucks, who are knocking on the door. Detroit needs more games like this down the stretch to ensure a playoff visit.

3) Jusuf Nurkic has been a revelation in Portland, lifts Trail Blazers past Sixers. In Denver, Jusuf Nurkic was the odd man out — Nikola Jokic was the big man of the future (as he should be), Jokic and Nurkic couldn’t play well together, and that left Nurkic the odd man out. Denver wanted to get rid of Nurkic so badly they sent him and a valued 2017 first round pick to Portland (for Mason Plumlee and a second rounder).

Since his arrival in Portland, Nurkic has done things he didn’t show in Denver (or refused to do) and has been the big man has sparked a four-game winning streak (Nurkic said  “I played minutes for first time in my life”). Thursday night he had 28 points, 20 rebounds, eight assists, six blocks, two steals and the game-sealing defensive play in overtime to help the Blazers beat the Sixers in overtime. Portland is now just half a game back of Nurkic’s former team in Denver for the eighth seed in the West.

Nurkic has averaged 16.5 pts, 9.6 rebs, and 4.5 assists per game since coming to Portland, giving the Blazers far more than Plumlee did — and more than they expected in the deal. Plus the Blazers got a first rounder out of this.

If Portland makes the playoffs, Nurkic will be a key reason.

To Bam Adebayo, Heat game days are always Mother’s Day

Heat star Bam Adebayo
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Miami center Bam Adebayo went into the locker room at halftime of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals knowing that he wasn’t doing enough.

He didn’t need to see video. Or talk to Heat teammates. Or check the stats.

He only needed to think of his mother.

“That first half wasn’t me and I had to reboot myself, man,” Adebayo said. “So, you ask yourself: Where do you come from and what’s your why? What’s your why? And for me, that’s my mom.”

Marilyn Blount, this was for you. Adebayo nearly outscored the Boston Celtics by himself in the third quarter, the Heat turned the game around and went on to win 106-101 Thursday night to take a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals — putting the kid who grew up in a single-wide trailer with a mom making something like $15,000 a year two wins away from the NBA Finals.

Adebayo had four points at the half, and the Heat were down by 13. He had 17 in the second half, when Miami outscored Boston by 18.

“Games are long and you just have to figure out different ways to impact winning,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “And Bam, he understands that.”

It wasn’t just Adebayo in the second half, which is the brilliance of this Heat team — it’s never just one guy. Adebayo had 17 points after halftime on 8-for-10 shooting, Goran Dragic had 16 points in the final two quarters, Tyler Herro had more rebounds than anyone after halftime and Jimmy Butler made three steals in the final 3:40 to help Miami finish off matters.

“I’m happy to be on this team with these guys because everybody here has a different story,” Adebayo said. “We all come from nothing and that’s what’s beautiful about this team.”

He may have come from nothing. Right now, for a Miami team that is 10-1 so far in this postseason to match the best start in franchise playoff history, he’s doing everything.

He had the game-saving block of a Jayson Tatum dunk attempt in the final seconds of Game 1 of the East finals, made the NBA’s All-Defensive team, became an All-Star for the first time and won the skills competition at All-Star weekend.

He’s averaging 16.8 points, 11 rebounds and 5.1 assists so far in the playoffs; the only two players who have done that, at his age of 22 or less, in a full postseason are Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley.

“He knows what makes him tick, what makes him go,” Butler said. “He knows why he’s playing the game. Spo always says, ‘What’s your why?’ He gets it. He understands. He knows that we need him to play at an extremely high level to be successful. He’s an All-Star, All-Defensive Player. He’s everything for us.”

Adebayo could agree this offseason, whenever free agency starts, to a contract that will set him up for life, set his mother up for whatever she wants as well. He’s already looking at houses for her; these days, she’s got an apartment in the same building where her son lives, just down the street from the arena that the Heat call home.

He doesn’t hide from the past. He doesn’t forget having nothing. It doesn’t embarrass him. It inspires him.

“That competitive nature comes out when I feel like I’m playing bad and when things aren’t going right,” Adebayo said. “I think about how she fought through struggle. I feel like she was in the gym tonight. It was like I could hear her in my ear. I watched her get knocked down and get back up so many times. You see that for 18 years straight, you take that load on and feel that responsibility. And my responsibility is to provide for my mom, and the best way to make sure I can do that is to help us win.”

They’re winning. They’re the surprise of the bubble, in the sense that they’re the lowest seed — Miami was No. 5 in the East — still standing.

Two more wins, and they’ll be going to the NBA Finals. Adebayo knows they’ll be the hardest wins to get.

“It sounds crazy,” Adebayo said. “Think about the beginning of the year, when we were telling everybody, ‘We have a chance, we have a chance.’ I remember having a conversation with a couple guys, playing out how the season was going to go before it started, and they said we were a No. 7, No. 8 seed and would get knocked out in the first round.

“I took that kind of personal,” he added. “You’re not going to sit here and just bash my team like that. We’ve proven to people now that we belong in the playoffs, that we’re taking this head on. We’re underdogs. That’s our mentality.”

He’s been one his whole life.

It seems to work for him — thanks to his mom.

“Watching her, I built my competitive nature,” Adebayo said. “That’s how I learned that the strong survive.”

Report: Giannis Antetokounmpo wins NBA MVP

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Giannis Antetokounmpo absolutely dominated the regular season.

That can be easy to forget. Coronavirus caused a lengthy interruption. In the spotlight when play resumed, Antetokounmpo underwhelmed. The Bucks flamed out in the second round.

So, this timing is awkward.

But MVP is a regular-season award, and Antetokounmpo will deservedly win his second straight.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Antetokounmpo’s performance comes as speculation intensifies about his future in Milwaukee.

He’ll be eligible for a super-max extension this offseason. If he bypasses it, he’ll also be eligible for a super-max contract in 2021 free agency.

Because of this award, Antetokounmpo will now also be eligible to sign a super-max deal in 2022 free agency.

Maybe he won’t be a free agent that offseason. But this opens his options if he takes a shorter contract to let league-wide revenue rise post-pandemic and/or further assess the Bucks.

Antetokounmpo has that type of leverage. At just 25, he put himself in the pantheon of players to win consecutive MVPs:

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo
  • Stephen Curry
  • LeBron James
  • Steve Nash
  • Tim Duncan
  • Michael Jordan
  • Magic Johnson
  • Larry Bird
  • Moses Malone
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  • Wilt Chamberlain
  • Bill Russell

Antetokounmpo has a bright future, especially with the mentality to fix his shortcomings. He must polish his skills (and maybe approach) to thrive in the playoffs. But it’s easy to project growth there.

Already, Antetokounmpo has the regular season solved.

He joins Michael Jordan (1988) and Hakeem Olajuwon (1994) as the only players to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. Fun fact: Jordan’s Bulls also lost in the second round in five games the year he claimed both awards. It got better for Jordan and Chicago from there, eventually.

LeBron and James Harden finished second and third in some order for 2020 MVP. The NBA will officially announce the winner at 2 p.m. Presumably, we’ll also get full voting then.

Report: Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown bickered in Celtics’ locker room

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After their Game 2 loss to the Heat last night, the Celtics – especially Marcus Smart – made a commotion in their locker room.

What actually happened?

Apparently, Smart and Jaylen Brown got into it.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Boston Celtics’ Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown had a heated confrontation inside that locker room after the Game 2 loss and needed to be separated by teammates, multiple sources told The Athletic.

Sources told The Athletic that Smart stormed into the Celtics postgame locker room saying that other players needed to be held accountable and not simply point the finger toward him when things are going wrong. As Smart continued and his voice grew louder, sources said Brown snapped back and shouted that Celtics players must stay together and that their actions must come as a team, not individually, and that Smart needed to cool off. Those sources added Smart had verbal exchanges with a couple of the assistant coaches during the game.

None of this is new for Smart. Not jawing with a Boston assistant coach during a game. Not getting hot after a loss. Not even clashing with Brown.

This is who he is – sometimes for good, sometimes not. But the same reasons Smart thrives as a feisty player are the same reasons he was going off last night.

Brown, via Justin Leger of NBC Sports Boston:

“He plays with passion, he’s full of fire, and that’s what I love about him most, to be honest. He has that desire and that will and we need him to continue to have that. There’s ups and downs with families all the time. But we embrace each other for who we are. And who Marcus is, I love him for it.”

Brown doesn’t mind a little chaos if it serves a greater purpose. He’s emotionally mature enough to handle this.

But will last night’s incident actually help the Celtics? Maybe it’ll light a fire under them to keep their foot on the gas when leading.

Offensive sets that can beat a zone defense would probably go further, though.

Gordon Hayward reportedly feels good, hopes to return for Game 3

Gordon Hayward return
Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images
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After a frustrating come-from-ahead loss to Miami to go down 0-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Boston Celtics need a boost.

Like the return of Gordon Hayward.

That is on track to happen in Game 3, although nothing is official, reports Jared Weiss of The Athletic.

Hayward has been sidelined since he suffered a grade III ankle sprain in the first game of the playoffs against Philadelphia. He left the bubble for a time to get treatment, but has been back with the team, working out and going through a practice.

Gordon Hayward could be Boston’s X-factor in the conference finals — and his return may be the lift it needs. He gives the Celtics another versatile wing player — along with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum — who can create his own shot and knock down open looks. Throw in Kemba Walker, and Hayward would be the fourth scoring option for Boston, making the Celtics deep and difficult to defend. Hayward also spent time guarding Butler during the regular-season matchups.